When I first heard about this book, I was pretty excited, since I’ve consistently enjoyed Marie Rutkoski’s work (and LOVED her first trilogy). My enthusiasm suffered a slight ding when I read The Book Smuggler’s review, but I still looked forward to reading it a lot.
So, what to say, after actually reading? The writing is wonderful, which is not surprising. Rutkoski is a skilled prose writer, one of those people who can make it look so effortless. The world and characters are engaging and the pace really sweeps along, making for a breathless read, especially in the second half.
I very much liked and appreciated the fact that Kestrel is a heroine with a lot of agency and strength who is not great at fighting. Her talents lie in strategy and planning. Since I am always going on about the need for all kinds of heroines, this was a very nice thing to see.
I’ll also note that while I didn’t love the cover at first glance, and even really now, since it puts Kestrel in a weirdly passive pose, it does include a number of nice little details from the book–her braided hair, the dagger, etc.
Going in, I was worried about the romance between Kestrel and Arin, the slave she buys. It sounds fairly dicey in the abstract. That aspect actually turned out to be really well done, in my opinion. There’s a sense of meeting of the minds, rather than the purely physical “He’s so cutttteee” attraction which I personally feel is the downfall of many paranormal romances. They’re both complicated enough characters that their relationship is not a smooth one, but it’s also written in a way that I bought and became invested in.
So, all of those are positives, but I was left with some niggling issues and a whole post-it of notes. These are mostly related to the implications of the wider political scope of the book. Now, I’ll note that this is the first in a trilogy and I may later eat my words. However, I’m not entirely convinced that this will happen.
I’ll note now that the rest of this review will probably be mildly spoilery–if you want to avoid any and all spoilers, this is the place to stop reading.
Overall, I was left with a sense that, although lots of things happen–lots of huge changes in the characters’ lives and in their world which have huge implications for the way things will go in the future–the decisions and the consequences of those decisions are too easy. This is revolution, but it is a carefully planned revolution in which there is no chaos, no rioting, no uncontrolled bloodshed.
Similarly, because Kestrel’s strength is strategy, many of her decisions are made on the level of intellect rather than emotion. Although I certainly like seeing this as a strength, I also felt that it gave her actions a deliberate, bounded quality. Certainly there are consequences she doesn’t see or intend–the resolution of the book proves that–and yet, even in the twists, I felt that things were planned.
I also felt pretty strongly that Arin and Kestrel are both too Special. This is more of an issue in Arin’s case than in Kestrel’s, who is at least the child of one of the most rich and important men in the empire. Her skills make sense given her upbringing, special tutors, and so on. In Arin’s case, he’s about ten when the Herrani are subsumed into the Empire. He is then a slave, working in a quarry, in the docks, as a blacksmith. His being able to read makes sense; his knowing enough to successfully plan a revolution doesn’t work so well.
Underlying all of this is a key objection I have: that for a book dealing with the breaking down of privilege and a revolution against an oppressive government, the status quo remains oddly unchanged. We never really see the effects of slavery on the Herrani; there is no sense of the everyday violence they suffer, except the beating that Arin suffers at the hands of the Trajan family guards. The violence that we actually see as readers starts with the revolution.
I kept comparing this portrayal of Greco-Roman style slavery with that in A Conspiracy of Kings, which also deal with a child of privilege being confronted with the reality of slavery, but which has–at least for me–a much different effect. Sophos, in that instance, is himself directly affected and changed because of his experiences; his assumptions about the way the world works are completely broken down. While The Winner’s Curse makes many of the same moves, Kestrel has to be almost impossibly sympathetic, even at the beginning.
And although Arin is a point-of-view character, he is far more static than Kestrel. Kestrel, whose changing understanding allegiances are at the heart of the story. It’s her journey that is important, a kind of privileging of privilege. And Arin is, of course, a child of privilege himself, despite his current position. He is the natural leader of the Herrani resistance, because he is naturally charming and well spoken and strategically gifted–in a word, he is well born, with all that phrase implies. His conflict as a character comes with his growing attraction to Kestrel and the tension between that and his duty to his people, which is all good and interesting as it goes (I do like when main characters want to do the right thing), but it’s never resolved and I never had a sense that he had grown as a character.
All of this probably sounds more negative than I really mean it to. They’re certainly questions and concerns I have, but at the same time, I would say that I did enjoy The Winner’s Curse and intend to read the rest of the books. I’ll be interested to see if my perception changes once the series is complete. And I’ll add the caveat that other readers may not notice, or may not care about, or may disagree with my reading of the implications of the political aspects of the book. That’s all perfectly valid.